A New Prophet for the Polygamists?

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Douglas C. Pizac / AFP / Getty

Former Leader of Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Warren Jeffs

"I am one of the most wicked men on the face of the earth since the days of Father Adam." Those words, spoken by polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs, were recorded in a jailhouse phone conversation over year ago. On tape, he renounced his leadership of the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints, the breakaway Mormon sect whose latest run-in with the law saw hundreds of women and children rounded up by authorities in Eldorado, Texas.

Jeffs' "convulsive" condition, his taped "recantation" of his role as Prophet and a recent brief hospital stay away from jail prompted speculation about his control of the FLDS and over who might assume the leadership of the sect. Will it be a return to a more benign leadership, or could there be a battle that might turn bloody, as some splits in polygamist communities have proved in the past?

Sam Brower, a private investigator who works for a Salt Lake City law firm representing several former FLDS clients who are suing Jeffs and the trust that holds much of the community's property, said most of the members of Jeffs' leadership team — the most likely pool for a new FLDS Prophet — "are in the wind," transient and hard to find. But William E. Jessop, the man on the receiving end of Jeffs's 2007 jailhouse conversation, lives openly in Hildale, Utah, an FLDS community. He is described as "respected as bishop in the FLDS religion" in dossiers compiled around Jeff's trial and sent by Utah law enforcement to Texas officials to help with their case against the Eldorado polygamists. As for Jessop's prestige, his portrait can be found hanging in some FLDS homes, though perhaps not as ubiquitous as Jeffs's. In his recantation, Jeffs described Jessop as "the true keyholder appointed by his father." Brower, who believes Jeffs is "a deviant," says Jessop is "less twisted."

Also, hanging on some FLDS walls is the photograph of Wendell Nielsen, a key Jeffs' ally, an FLDS money man and "a trusted confidante who did a lot more than any of us know," Brower says. Nielsen founded a Las Vegas high-tech machine shop company, NewEra Manufacturing (formerly Western Precision) that counted among its clients the U.S. Department of Defense. Texas Congresswoman Kay Granger has called for an investigation of a $1.2 million aircraft parts contract that Nielson's company signed with the federal government. Despite the image presented by quaintly dressed mothers and bucolic family life, the FLDS is a well-run business enterprise, Brower says, big in construction and trucking, relying on cheap labor provided by the community's ill-educated young men. "They know how to read a tape measure," he says.

Other candidates for the top role include Merrill Jessop, leader of the YFZ Ranch in Eldorado, whose his wife Carolyn Jessop detailed her flight from the FLDS in her book Escape (soon to be a movie featuring Gray's Anatomy star Katherine Heigl). One of her reasons for leaving was to prevent Jeffs from marrying her daughter — nine of Merrill Jessop's daughters are believed to be married to Jeffs, according to experts who study the sect. Other names bandied about as the potential next Prophet include Jeffs' brother Isaac and even another Jessop — William Roy Jessop. The Utah dossiers sent to Texas describe Willie Jessop as "the most serious threat affiliated with the FLDS," and someone who "reportedly has a passion for violence, weapons (legal and illegal) and explosives," and is also known as "Willie the Thug" or "King Willie." Willie Jessop is the group's spokesman and has become the most public face of the FLDS, apart from the primly dressed mothers pleading for their children on national television. Jessop constantly declares that there will be no more underage marriages even while writing to President Bush to compare the raid on the YFZ Ranch to a "terrorist act."

The FLDS was designed to be ruled by one man. "Essentially, every member belonging to the group is trained to look up to the leader, one man, the patriarch," says Marci Hamilton, Yeshiva University law professor, author and expert on cults. "Effectively with Warren in jail there is instability, no leader, no access." In a community that is "bred to be obedient to the nth degree" Jeffs' absence is a destabilizing force, Hamilton says.

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